“The United States of Amnesia.” That’s what Gore Vidal once called us. We remember what we find it convenient to remember and forget everything else. That forgetfulness especially applies to the history of others. How could their past, way back when, have any meaning for us today? Well, it just might. Take the European conflagration of 1914–18, for example.
You may not have noticed. There’s no reason why you should have, fixated as we all are on the daily torrent of presidential tweets and the flood of mindless rejoinders they elicit. But let me note for the record that the centenary of the conflict once known as the Great War is well underway and before the present year ends will have concluded.
Indeed, a hundred years ago this month, the 1918 German Spring Offensive—code-named Operation Michael—was sputtering to an unsuccessful conclusion. A last desperate German gamble, aimed at shattering Allied defenses and gaining a decisive victory, had fallen short. In early August of that year, with large numbers of our own doughboys now on the front lines, a massive Allied counteroffensive was to commence, continuing until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when an armistice finally took effect and the guns fell silent.
In the years that followed, Americans demoted the Great War. It became World War I, vaguely related to but overshadowed by the debacle next in line, known as World War II. Today, the average citizen knows little about that earlier conflict other than that it preceded and somehow paved the way for an even more brutal bloodletting. Also, on both occasions, the bad guys spoke German.
So, among Americans, the war of 1914–18 became a neglected stepsister of sorts, perhaps in part because the United States only got around to suiting up for that conflict about halfway through the fourth quarter. With the war of 1939–45 having been sacralized as the moment when the Greatest Generation saved humankind, the war-formerly-known-as-the-Great-War collects dust in the bottom drawer of the American collective consciousness.
From time to time, some politician or newspaper columnist will resurrect the file labeled “August 1914,” the grim opening weeks of that war, and sound off about the dangers of sleepwalking into a devastating conflict that nobody wants or understands. Indeed, with Washington today having become a carnival of buncombe so sublimely preposterous that even that great journalistic iconoclast H.L. Mencken might have been struck dumb, ours is perhaps an apt moment for just such a reminder.
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Yet a different aspect of World War I may possess even greater relevance to the American present. I’m thinking of its duration: The longer it lasted, the less sense it made. But on it went, impervious to human control like the sequence of biblical plagues that God had inflicted on the ancient Egyptians.
So the relevant question for our present American moment is this: Once it becomes apparent that a war is a mistake, why would those in power insist on its perpetuation, regardless of costs and consequences? In short, when getting in turns out to have been a bad idea, why is getting out so difficult, even (or especially) for powerful nations that presumably should be capable of exercising choice on such matters? Or more bluntly, how did the people in charge during the Great War get away with inflicting such extraordinary damage on the nations and peoples for which they were responsible?
For those countries that endured World War I from start to finish—especially Great Britain, France, and Germany—specific circumstances provided their leaders with an excuse for suppressing second thoughts about the cataclysm they had touched off.
Among them were:
* mostly compliant civilian populations deeply loyal to some version of King and Country, further kept in line by unremitting propaganda that minimized dissent;
* draconian discipline—deserters and malingerers faced firing squads—that maintained order in the ranks (most of the time) despite the unprecedented scope of the slaughter;
* the comprehensive industrialization of war, which ensured a seemingly endless supply of the weaponry, munitions, and other equipment necessary for outfitting mass conscript armies and replenishing losses as they occurred.
Economists would no doubt add sunk costs to the mix. With so much treasure already squandered and so many lives already lost, the urge to press on a bit longer in hopes of salvaging at least some meager benefit in return for what (and who) had been done in was difficult to resist.
Even so, none of these, nor any combination of them, can adequately explain why, in the midst of an unspeakable orgy of self-destruction, with staggering losses and nations in ruin, not one monarch or president or premier had the wit or gumption to declare: Enough! Stop this madness!
Instead, the politicians sat on their hands while actual authority devolved onto the likes of British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, French Marshals Ferdinand Foch and Philippe Petain, and German commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. In other words, to solve a conundrum they themselves had created, the politicians of the warring states all deferred to their warrior chieftains. For their part, the opposing warriors jointly subscribed to a perverted inversion of strategy best summarized by Ludendorff as “punch a hole [in the front] and let the rest follow.” And so the conflict dragged on and on.
The Forfeiture of Policy
Put simply, in Europe, a hundred years ago, war had become politically purposeless. Yet the leaders of the world’s principal powers—including, by 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson—could conceive of no alternative but to try harder, even as the seat of Western civilization became a charnel house.
Only one leader bucked the trend: Vladimir Lenin. In March 1918, soon after seizing power in Russia, Lenin took that country out of the war. In doing so, he reasserted the primacy of politics and restored the possibility of strategy. Lenin had his priorities straight. Nothing in his estimation took precedence over ensuring the survival of the Bolshevik Revolution. Liquidating the war against Germany therefore became an imperative.
Allow me to suggest that the United States should consider taking a page out of Lenin’s playbook. Granted, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, such a suggestion might have smacked of treason. Today, however, in the midst of our never-ending efforts to expunge terrorism, we might look to Lenin for guidance on how to get our priorities straight.
As was the case with Great Britain, France, and Germany a century ago, the United States now finds itself mired in a senseless war. Back then, political leaders in London, Paris, and Berlin had abrogated control of basic policy to warrior chieftains. Today, ostensibly responsible political leaders in Washington have done likewise. Some of those latter-day American warrior chieftains who gather in the White House or testify on Capitol Hill may wear suits rather than uniforms, but all remain enamored with the 21st-century equivalent of Ludendorff’s notorious dictum.
Of course, our post-9/11 military enterprise—the undertaking once known as the Global “War on Terrorism”—differs from the Great War in myriad ways. The ongoing hostilities in which US forces are involved in various parts of the Islamic world do not qualify, even metaphorically, as “great.” Nor will there be anything great about an armed conflict with Iran, should members of the current administration get their apparent wish to provoke one.
Today, Washington need not even bother to propagandize the public into supporting its war. By and large, members of the public are indifferent to its very existence. And given our reliance on a professional military, shooting citizen-soldiers who want to opt out of the fight is no longer required.
There are also obvious differences in scale, particularly when it comes to the total number of casualties involved. Cumulative deaths from the various US interventions, large and small, undertaken since 9/11, number in the hundreds of thousands. The precise tally of those lost during the European debacle of 1914–18 will never be known, but the total probably surpassed 13 million.
Even so, similarities between the Great War as it unspooled and our own not-in-the-least-great war(s) deserve consideration. Today, as then, strategy—that is, the principled use of power to achieve the larger interests of the state—has ceased to exist. Indeed, war has become an excuse for ignoring the absence of strategy.
For years now, US military officers and at least some national security aficionados have referred to ongoing military hostilities as “the Long War.” To describe our conglomeration of spreading conflicts as “long” obviates any need to suggest when or under what circumstances (if any) they might actually end. It’s like the meteorologist forecasting a “long winter” or the betrothed telling his or her beloved that theirs will be a “long engagement.” The implicit vagueness is not especially encouraging.
Some high-ranking officers of late have offered a more forthright explanation of what “long” may really mean. In The Washington Post, the journalist Greg Jaffe recently reported that “winning for much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put.” Winning, according to Air Force General Mike Holmes, is simply “not losing. It’s staying in the game.”
Not so long ago, America’s armed forces adhered to a concept called victory, which implied conclusive, expeditious, and economical mission accomplished. No more. Victory, it turns out, is too tough to achieve, too restrictive, or, in the words of Army Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy, “too absolute.” The United States military now grades itself instead on a curve. As Lundy puts it, “winning is more of a continuum,” an approach that allows you to claim mission accomplishment without, you know, actually accomplishing anything.
It’s like soccer for 6-year-olds. Everyone tries hard so everyone gets a trophy. Regardless of outcomes, no one goes home feeling bad. In the US military’s case, every general gets a medal (or, more likely, a chest full of them).
“These days,” in the Pentagon, Jaffe writes, “senior officers talk about ‘infinite war.’”
I would like to believe that Jaffe is pulling our leg. But given that he’s a conscientious reporter with excellent sources, I fear he knows what he’s talking about. If he’s right, as far as the top brass are concerned, the Long War has now officially gone beyond long. It has been deemed endless and is accepted as such by those who preside over its conduct.
In truth, infinite war is a strategic abomination, an admission of professional military bankruptcy. Erster General-Quartiermeister Ludendorff might have endorsed the term, but Ludendorff was a military fanatic.
Check that. Infinite war is a strategic abomination except for arms merchants, so-called defense contractors, and the “emergency men” (and women) devoted to climbing the greasy pole of what we choose to call the national-security establishment. In other words, candor obliges us to acknowledge that, in some quarters, infinite war is a pure positive, carrying with it a promise of yet more profits, promotions, and opportunities to come. War keeps the gravy train rolling. And, of course, that’s part of the problem.
Who should we hold accountable for this abomination? Not the generals, in my view. If they come across as a dutiful yet unimaginative lot, remember that a lifetime of military service rarely nurtures imagination or creativity. And let us at least credit our generals with this: In their efforts to liberate or democratize or pacify or dominate the Greater Middle East, they have tried every military tactic and technique imaginable. Short of nuclear annihilation, they’ve played just about every card in the Pentagon’s deck—without coming up with a winning hand. So they come and go at regular intervals, each new commander promising success and departing after a couple years to make way for someone else to give it a try.
It tells us something about our prevailing standards of generalship that, by resurrecting an old idea—counterinsurgency—and applying it with temporary success to one particular theater of war, Gen. David Petraeus acquired a reputation as a military genius. If Petraeus is a military genius, so, too, is Gen. George McClellan. After he won the Battle of Rich Mountain in 1861, newspapers dubbed McClellan “the Napoleon of the Present War.” But the action at Rich Mountain decided nothing and McClellan didn’t win the Civil War any more than Petraeus won the Iraq War.
No, it’s not the generals who have let us down, but the politicians to whom they supposedly report and from whom they nominally take their orders. Of course, under the heading of politician, we quickly come to our current commander in chief. Yet it would be manifestly unfair to blame President Trump for the mess he inherited, even if he is presently engaged in making matters worse.
The failure is a collective one, to which several presidents and both political parties have contributed over the years. Although the carnage may not be as horrific today as it was on the European battlefields on the Western and Eastern Fronts, members of our political class are failing us as strikingly and repeatedly as the political leaders of Great Britain, France, and Germany failed their peoples back then. They have abdicated responsibility for policy to our own homegrown equivalents of Haig, Foch, Petain, Hindenburg, and Ludendorff. Their failure is unforgivable.
Congressional midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay, black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the support of the electorate.
Until that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward infinity. No doubt Saudi and Israeli leaders will cheer, Europeans who remember their Great War will scratch their heads in wonder, and the Chinese will laugh themselves silly. Meanwhile, issues of genuinely strategic importance—climate change offers one obvious example—will continue to be treated like an afterthought. As for the gravy train, it will roll on.